Editor’s note: The People’s Tribune interviews Chuck Nelson, a retired West Virginia coalminer, United Mineworkers Union member and longtime fighter to stop the destruction of the environment and people’s lives by the coal industry.
WEST VIRGINIA — In 2017, we testified on the health study by scientists on the impact of mountain top removal mining on Appalachian communities. About a month or two later, Trump suspended any study that would cost over $100,000. The only one he suspended was this health study. We’re trying to get that restarted and we want to know why it was suspended. We haven’t gotten a straight answer. The only reason is that industry got to government; industry didn’t want it done. In April 2019, Donna Branham, from West Virginia, with years of working as a nurse, and Carl Shoupe, a retired Kentucky coal miner, and others, testified in front of a congressional hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee. We’re waiting to see if there will be a ruling to restart that study or not.
The industry claims there are only eight active true mountain top removal (MTR) mining sites happening in the U.S, in Kentucky and West Virginia. We find this hard to believe. There’s one right by my house, below Whitesville. They spend a lot of time saying they aren’t doing it anymore—they put another name on it but it’s the same thing. Saying we’re done with MTR is a bald-faced lie. They’re blowing mountaintops off and dumping debris into valleys and it’s getting closer to the community where I live. Last fall I got on the site and saw they had cleared the top of the mountain. I know what’s next. They’re getting ready to drill and blast it. I can go to four or five sites within an hour’s drive of my house. We’re tired of hearing lies. Sen. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a leading Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, is demanding answers to why the study was suspended, and that it needs to proceed. It seems like the health of the people doesn’t matter to Trump and a lot of people in D.C. When they had tainted water in the Senate building, they shut it down. We deserve the same rights. But our health impact is ignored. Every time a study starts, it’s shut down by politicians catering to industry. We are fed up.
This study would show the evidence that the community’s health is impacted. They should put a moratorium on mountain top mining until the study is done. That’s not asking too much. If there’s even a chance that it’s not safe and impacting people, it should be stopped. We need to stop it and find out if it is hurting people or not. I’ve already lost one kidney, and the other one’s not good. I have had many places removed from my skin diagnosed as skin cancer. I’ve been talking about the health impacts, long before I got sick. I’ve been in these communities and seen all this. We’re tired of giving body parts and lives to this industry, and people dying. They argue about it but they’re making people sick, and putting hardships on families. If I didn’t have healthcare I would be absolutely ruined. I’d have no way to afford some of the doctor bills. My wife Linda is in and out of the hospital and on oxygen. It’s time to be heard. I can imagine what some of the other families are going through that don’t have insurance. The politicians that cater to industry don’t value people’s lives, just like in Flint. It’s sad.
Nobody is getting awards for Black Lung either. It’s always been a dirty deal. Doctors and lawyers are involved in covering up Black Lung. John Hopkins Hospital was caught scheming with the industry law firm, Jackson/Kelly, in Charleston, WV, where thousands of claimants were denied benefits. The doctors and lawyers represent the coal companies. I have particles on my lung but it didn’t reach the stage that it was bad enough to get benefits. First thing Massey Energy did when I worked there was to deliberately destroy the ventilation out. It was so dusty you couldn’t see. When I was loading coal, I had to turn my cap light off because of the reflection. I could see a silhouette from the lights behind me and the only way I could see was to turn my light off. The dust was that thick. That’s why Black Lung is on the increase with younger miners. There aren’t any union mines and no union representation of the miners who would see that everything was done right.
We’re trying to get this study passed. It’s crucial. The coal industry is doing like they always do, especially with Trump, getting anything they want. It’s what we have to live with here. They don’t want to do it because there’s so much evidence that says that it’s impacting our health and they don’t want to stop MTR. We deserve this study. The industry gets by with a lot more, since Trump’s in office. First it was the steam protection law where they can now dump whatever they want into streams. Contaminated water flows into tributaries where we get our water. Everything we’ve worked for years for to improve our health and environment, Trump did away with in one stroke of the pen for the coal industry. The industry donates so much to the presidential campaigns to get their way. The state level is even worse. They bribe to get whatever they want.
We hope this hearing helps better our community. People are not speaking out because the evidence has not been shown to them. It’s being censored. Even Manchin (U.S. Senator, WV) had one study censored. I’ve worked with air testing, water sampling, things that normal citizens don’t get to do. I worked with the National Geological Survey (NGS) when they did tests for the federal government and we discussed that it is not good what they’re finding. I said, “Come back and meet with the community and let them know what you found.” They said, “I will, I will.” Well months went by. I finally called and said, “I thought you were coming back to present your findings.” Bill Orem said, “They stopped the funding on the project.” That’s what they do. I’m getting pretty sick of this. I know this stuff makes people sick. I’ve seen too many of my friends get sick and die. We don’t get any benefits for destroying our lungs. Everything we’ve worked for in life is being taken. People should start raising hell about this.
I just saw that they arrested one of the pipeline protesters and charged them with a felony. They’re trying everything. People used to sit in trees to halt the mining practice of blasting. Their bail money got set so high they couldn’t make it. I noticed that they also infiltrate some of these movements to break things up. I’ve seen it happen. They’re successful in getting a few here fighting each other.
It doesn’t help us that these land companies that have bought up so much of West Virginia and don’t pay any taxes. They pay pennies for thousands and thousands of acres, which the land companies have had for 150 years. They’re waiting for an opportunity to profit from timbering, mining, gas, or whatever mineral rights they can. We have had meetings to discuss the little amount of taxes they pay. They’re not for people’s interests; they’re about destruction of the environment. It doesn’t cost them anything to hold on to the land. They block access to that land. You go up in the mountains and you may be getting on some land company’s properties and they may want to prosecute you. It’s getting to where you can’t do anything. I feel like I spent my entire life on this land, and these people are not even from around here saying I can’t do this or that. The frustration is coming out.
Environmental organizations were supposed to help but they have made millions off of the lawsuits. Once the suits are settled, millions of dollars disappear. Celebrities come in here and talk about the streams killing aquatic life, but what about people’s lives? When you affect the aquatic, you’re affecting the food chain, all the way up to humans. I get mad—why the lack of discussion about the impacts on humans? That is what gets me—the health study impacts are staggering.
We need an administration that works with the people, that listens to the people’s concerns and is sincere. Every time you fight back, they use as their defense the jobs issue. I hate to see people lose their jobs. We can have better jobs if that industry would go away. We’d be a lot better off if they were gone. They’ve been promising prosperity for 100 years and we’re at the bottom of every category in the U.S. As much money as they’ve made off this state, you’d think people would have a better living. It’s getting worse and worse. They would go back to slave labor like they did when they first did mining if they could, using kids, using any way to make money. I didn’t see them pay my medical bills when I had kidney issues. It falls back on the community; it’s difficult. This study is very important to get to the community. Other places are facing the same problems.
We need to hold all these people’s feet to the fire. We need to find some way of uniting the issues with the people here, bring people together. You can’t accomplish anything with just a handful, they can crush you. You need to get a big movement. They are destroying your lives, get off the couch and do something. This is affecting your future. There’s just no opportunity here. It’s a long, drawn-out fight. The younger generation is more aware, and more motivated for change. People need to see the enthusiasm of young people, really.
Congressional Hearing on Health and Environmental Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining on April 19, 2019
On April 9, 2019 the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a legislative hearing titled the “Health and Environmental Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining.” It included testimony on the bill H.R. 2050 (Rep. John Yarmuth) Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act of 2019: to place a moratorium on permitting for mountaintop removal coal mining until health studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services. See video of the Congressional hearing at https://naturalresources.house.gov/hearings/health-and-environmental-impacts-of-mountaintop-removal-mining
The following are excerpts from some of the testimony at the hearing:
Question about the state of health in the areas of mountain top removal activity:
Michael McCawley, PhD: “My findings clearly show that there is evidence to believe the air pollution levels in this region are sufficient to account for an increased prevalence of disease . . . ultra-fine . . . microscopic sized particles have been found to be highly inflammatory when living cells are exposed to them . . . The inflammation that these ultra fine particles can cause, are known to be associated with virtually all chronic diseases . . . Chronic health effects in mountain top removal areas is unfortunately unsurprising . . . these effects are supported by dozens of independently written peer reviewed scientific articles . . . around the country and . . . world. . . . the coal miners working in and the citizens living near these mountain top operations have suffered the consequences of exposure to these operations for too long. The introduction of the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act is a step in the right direction . . . (Dr. McCawley has a doctorate in environmental health with over 40 years in the field with government, academia and industry and over 60 peer reviewed publications in his field. He is clinical associate professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health.)
Question about how the community felt when the study was stopped halfway through:
Donna Branham: “We felt abandoned . . . as if our lives didn’t matter, not considered and counted as citizens or human beings . . . one day I was at Charleston, our capitol, and speaking with a lobbyist for the coal company and tried to show him some water that looked worse than there … I invited that he could open people’s faucets . . . he said ‘you are dispensable’ and he walked away. . . I think we’re collateral damage because we speak up. . . I want my children my grandchildren and the population of this great country [to know] that we have pride and can speak up and be heard.” (Ms. Branham, from West Virginia, has many years working as a nurse.)
Question about banning mountain top removal and H R. 2050:
Tyler White, President, Kentucky Coal Association: “Surface coal mining uses blasts across the country . . . as drafted, the bill would stop existing operations . . . effectively halting mining . . . the Kentucky Coal Association is opposed to House resolution 2050.”
Carl Shoupe: [Two boys were sleeping in a house and] “sometime around 2 in the morning, they were mining on mountain top removal. . . a bulldozer rolled off of the top of the mountain, came to the boys house . . . and killed one of the boys. That is uncalled for. This is some of the things that happen with mountain top removal. They destroy our streams, our water supplies… I don’t see where it is benefitting the community at all.” (Mr. Shoupe is a retired Kentucky coal miner)
Donna Branham: “Yes . . . I think it does need to be banned completely.”
Michael McCawley, PhD: “Yes. We should follow the examples of the European Union [They] had exactly the same problem with ultra-fine particles in the air … they decided it was due to their use of diesels and they banned diesels . . . I think we need to follow suit: [In answer to why was the study banned]: “I think they believed that the study was going to come out with evidence that supported banning mountain top mining. . . they know what the evidence was . . . I know [that] because I know most of the panel members. They are colleagues of mine . . . from a scientist’s standpoint, yes [start the study back up]; the only hesitation I have [is] that having stopped the study like that, I’m a little uncertain that they won’t be untowardly influenced by the politics that were behind it, fear for their own careers.”
Question about what you want to see for your children and grandchildren:
Donna Branham: “More diversity and opportunity in jobs, see Congress and government pass more control over water safety and health issues, move on away from fossil fuels, … Solar energy, all these things can provide jobs for Appalachians, we can do more than just coal; our people are genuine and resourceful . . . once the mines shut down or changes over to mountain top removal or strip mining, many people lose their jobs and have nowhere to turn for work, few opportunities for retraining . . . leads to dependency on drugs in my area…”
Carl Shoupe: “. . . At a mountain top removal site, you only got just a few people doing all this destruction; a bulldozer, a blaster, and a big [caterpillar] truck. . . . Put money in our area to fix what all these people have torn up…a half million beautiful hardwood trees and mountain tops that they’ve destroyed…need to be put back.”